Every artist, no matter what the medium, has a source of inspiration.
For Moanikeala Revoir, a quiltmaker who lives in Lehi, it was the bright flowers — birds of paradise — in her mother’s front yard in Hawaii, where she grew up.
Revoir’s 1983 quilt “The Birds of Paradise” is on display in a new exhibition that opened this month at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, accompanying a traveling show from New York’s American Folk Art Museum, “Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts.”
The traveling exhibition features 18 quilts, spanning from the 19th century to the 21st century. And, as the exhibition’s title suggests, quilts often act as maps.
“They have motifs, they have symbols,” said Luke Kelly, UMFA’s associate curator of collections. “They are at heart utilitarian to keep families warm, but it was also a blank canvas for the creator or creators to really experiment [with] color and design motifs.”
And while quilts are usually thought of for their practicality — padded cloth to cover a bed and provide warmth — some of the quilts in the touring exhibition challenge the idea of what a quilt is and what materials can be used in one.
For example, artist Jean-Marcel St. Jacques has made a career of making quilts, like his “Contrary to Hearsay; He wasn’t the devil,” from wood scraps he finds in the Treme neighborhood of his home town, New Orleans — debris left behind from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Another work, “Soldier’s Quilt,” by an unknown artist in India, is believed to have been made between 1850 and 1875, from the wool, buttons and other regalia of military uniforms. Then there’s Drunell Levinson’s quilt, made from aluminum-wrapped condoms that are tied together into a blanket.
Quilts and Utah history
In the accompanying exhibition of works from UMFA’s collection, one of the featured works is Bao Lee’s “Hmong Story Cloth” (1985), which documents the journey of the Hmong people from southeast Asia to the United States in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Another work in the UMFA-curated exhibition is “Three Quilt Designs,” artist Albert Charles Tissandler’s set of sketches of quilt patterns from Latter-day Saint pioneers from the 1880s.
Utah’s history of quilting goes back even before the first settlers arrived in the territory.
In 1830, Joseph Smith Jr. — the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — founded the Relief Society, which was initially created to help women in the church learn homemaking skills, such as quilting, according to a 1996 thesis by Brigham Young University student Helen-Louise Hancey.
As the Saints moved west, Hancey wrote, “textiles were very scarce” and “quilts were sometimes wrapped around people and used as clothing.” The tradition was passed down through generations, with “encouraged use” of individual pattern and color. Ultimately, Latter-day Saint quilts evolved in households from a source of warmth to artistic decor. (Hancey wrote that she picked up her mother’s knack for quilting, and that her mother’s quilts “were a reflection of her life.”)
Quilts are credited with saving the lives of Utah pioneers in the winter of 1864-1865, when a snowstorm stranded the starving residents of the village of Fairview. A party of men tried to walk to nearby Parowan, but the snow in the pass was too deep. The men took a quilt from a wagon, and laid it on the snow to pray. The men saw that they did not sink in the snow when they knelt on the quilt, so laid out more quilts and made it over the pass to get supplies. Thus the legend of the “Utah Quilt Walk” was born, saving Fairview — now called Panguitch, where an annual Quilt Walk is held every June.
Different places, different styles
Different parts of the world, and even different states, have their own quilting traditions and styles. Utah-based quilts, traditionally, are more patchwork-oriented, with small pieces of fabric sewn together in patterns.
Revoir, who moved to Utah in 1965, said she’s influenced by Utah’s style of quilting — noting that she learned her quilting skills from a Utah neighbor, Ruth Elkington. And she called Utah “the quilting capital of the world.”
Still, Revoir sticks to the Hawaiian style, which is “whole cloth, so you’ve got four layers: the top part, which is a solid piece of fabric, and then you’ve got another solid piece of fabric that your design is cut out of, and it’s usually something from nature,” she said. “You cut that out, kind of like a [paper] snowflake, and you put that on to the top part of the quilt and you hand-stitch that down. After that, you can layer the back, the batting, and then the quilt top.”
It’s a labor-intensive process that sometimes can take years. With “The Birds of Paradise,” though, she had a strict deadline. The Utah Division of Arts & Museum was looking for a Hawaiian quilt, so Revoir worked 15-hour days, seven days a week, for four months straight.
“This is actually the very, very first quilt that anyone ever saw outside of my family,” she said, noting that she has three quilt tops her mother started but never got to finish.
When “The Birds of Paradise” was done, Revoir said, she had to wash it because she had left blood stains on the fabric from pricking her fingers so much.
Birds of paradise are traditionally bright orange, but for her quilt version, Revoir chose a medium-pink shade — and, rather than a white background, which is traditional for Hawaiian quilts, she picked a lighter pink shade.
A sense of belonging
Quilting isn’t just for older artists — younger people are connecting with the craft, too, Revoir said. Revoir, who teaches at a junior high school in Lehi, once had a group of students make around 25 quilts to donate to Primary Children’s Hospital.
It’s also not limited to women. Many of Revoir’s male coworkers are quilters, she said.
“You either love detailed minute work or you don’t,” Revoir said. “There’s a comfort that you get from that. There is the idea that whoever is going to be using your quilt is going to have it wrapped around them with love.”
Revoir — who will teach a class on Hawaiian quilting and display more of her quilts in an ACME session at the museum on April 14, supported by Craft Lake City — said she hopes to keep making quilts as gifts, and for herself, as long as she can. She has a project she aims to tackle, to create a quilt for her daughter.
She said she aims to continue to use quilting as a form of communication. She has started to add small pockets on the backs of her quilts, to put handwritten letters. She also stitches her signature on each quilt she makes.
Quilting, Revoir said, gives her a sense of belonging, and a home away from home. “I can go anywhere in the world and if I can find a quilter, I’m immediately calm,” she said.
Quilts as maps and as history
“Handstitched Worlds: The Cartography of Quilts,” a touring exhibition by New York’s American Folk Art Museum, with support from International Arts & Artists, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. UMFA has also curated an accompanying exhibition of quilting in Utah’s past, with items from the museum’s permanent collection.
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Central Campus Drive, Salt Lake City.
When • Now through May 15.
Hours • Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., open until 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. Closed Mondays.
Admission • $15.95 for adults; $12.95 for seniors and youth 6 to 18; free for children 5 and under (accompanied by an adult), UMFA members, University of Utah students, staff and faculty, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT/WIC cardholders, and active duty military families. Free days on the first Wednesday and third Saturday of the month.
Events • Go to umfa.utah.edu for information about events tied to the exhibition.